Colleges and universities have long stood as the epitomes of knowledge and enlightenment; yet when you move beyond the manicured lawns and intricate architecture, you’ll see that many of these institutions have become isolated fortresses detached from the vibrant communities they reside in. For many students, their surrounding neighborhoods can exist in a parallel universe that they rarely engage with.
In these communities, there often exists a dichotomy between the university and the surrounding area that prevents students from realizing the ephemeral nature of their presence. The prevalence of the issue suggests a commonality –– namely, that perhaps universities themselves are structured in such a way that discourages (intentionally or not) an intertwining of local residents with the student body. The separation between students and local residents is not a consequence of student attitudes, but the very essence of the university.
Solutions to this issue can be difficult to find since most students live within the college community for the few years they attend college and then move out forever. But, thoughtful compromises between the lifestyle of students and the needs of local residents require meaningful discussions through the course of more than a few years. In universities with off-campus living, rapid changes in the neighborhood intensify this disconnect as student life expands into the community. In some cases, the effect is measurable: an analysis from 2016 on the neighborhoods surrounding Temple University in Philadelphia found a substantial correlation between more student housing and less long-term residents.
Universities bear the civic responsibility of integrating their student body into the local community. Again, it is largely the nature of universities, not students’ attitudes, that reinforces the divide between campus and neighborhood. Just because students enter college without an awareness of their surrounding community does not mean that they should not graduate with one. Since universities educate people who will have immense amounts of power in our society — our future CEOs, politicians, and even university presidents — it’s necessary to teach them social responsibility. That starts with their local communities.
Colleges can fulfill this responsibility by incorporating local history or current events into general curriculums. The issues that students study would resonate more personally if they viewed them in the context of the community that students share with long-term residents. Economics classes could study the effects of revitalization in their own neighborhood, or social studies classes could seek to understand these tensions between long-term residents and students. This approach would allow students to view their community not just as a living space but as an entity complete with its own identity and culture.
Universities should also find ways to allow local residents to enroll in these courses for free. Far too often, seminars feel inconsequential and counter-productive when they do not include first-hand perspectives. Local residents could give students access to a far more authentic education which steps outside the realm of abstraction. It would also allow local adults and high students the opportunity to learn from experienced professors, giving access to academic resources traditionally confined within the walls of academia.
Universities could also allow local residents to use campus buildings and facilities meant solely for university-affiliated individuals, such as their libraries. Many of the largest libraries in the United States are owned and operated by private universities, only allowing authorized individuals to access them. It’s likely not possible to open these libraries to the general public; but, the institutions who own these collections should strive to provide local community residents with access.
To foster a better relationship with local residents, universities should also allow them to stay out of university-related affairs. This does not mean excluding them from discussions or preventing their participation within the university community, but rather limiting the influence that university life has on their day-to-day life.
We should keep universities, especially those which are the wealthiest and most elite, accountable for teaching their students social responsibility, and this can only be done by example. Students come from all over the world to study at some of our society’s most prized and influential institutions, yet these same institutions forget the influence they have in teaching students how to positively impact the people living around them. If the world’s leading educators cannot teach students how to be socially conscious, then who will?